Breaking The Poverty Cycle

There is no such thing as free lunch. It’s one of the simplest realities of life.

Only, as my visit to Ngabu taught me, that’s not always true. The social cash transfer programme in Malawi is aimed at socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals and families. It targets extremely poor and old households, as well as those who are looking after many young or ill relatives.

The recipients are generally among the bottom 10% in their area with regards to income. Their poverty levels are judged with the help of community members and leaders, to ensure fairness.

According to a 2005 study, 45% of households in Malawi live below the poverty line with 17% stuck beneath the ultra poverty line. Ultra poverty is a slightly more palatable term for chronic hunger, physical weakness and essentially an early death sentence.

Such conditions typically arise in households with few or no adults who are capable of productive work. The reasons for this include illness, particularly HIV and AIDS, disability or a large number of other household members they need to care for.

Can you imagine growing up in a family that had so little money you could only afford to eat several times a week? A lifetime of going to bed with a growling stomach? Even with my wild imagination I struggle to grasp the impact such a situation would have on me.

What I do know is that it would have definitely held me back from doing my best at school. How could you concentrate on what the teacher is saying with visions of bread dancing in front of your eyes whether you open or close them? And that’s the lucky few – most children from ultra poor families will never be given the option to go to school.

Their families can rarely afford the cost of school uniforms and materials. Besides, they are often forced to stay at home and help out. According to the government’s figures 26% of Malawian children are involved in child labour.

The project’s premise is simple. Every month the beneficiaries receive a cash transfer of a set amount, aimed at helping them cope with day-to-day expenses. The amount is determined by the number of household members. A one member household would qualify for around 2,600 kwacha (€2.90), with the number increasing incrementally before capping out at four members. Those with school going children, at both primary and secondary level, qualify for extra money.

The amount of the donation seems minuscule to Western eyes. But walking into an air-conditioned supermarket in Brussels with €2.90 is very different to bringing it to a local street vendor in Malawi.

The cash transfer beneficiaries are encouraged to meet every two months and participate in what is known as village savings and loans (VSL). These savings are pooled among the local community and divided at the end of each year before being used for bigger purchases, such as fixing your roof.

Through VSL they can also take out loans with an interest rate around 20%. While this sounded very high to me, I was assured that within the Malawian context this is  very good rate.

The European Union (EU) implements the programme with the help of Concern International and the country’s Ministry of Gender. It supports it to the tune of €35 million and runs it in seven of Malawi’s twenty eight districts. The site we visited was in Ngabu in the Nsanje district, a few hours’ drive from the southern hub of Blantyre.

I got to meet three beneficiaries of the Social Cash Transfer programme and want to introduce you to each of them now, to better explain how the project has improved their lives.

Eunice Anderson, Sekelani

Eunice Anderson has lived in Sekelani village her entire life, but it’s not been an easy one. There are five people in her household, herself and four grand children who have been orphaned. Three of them still go to school with the youngest being just 7 years old.

This would be difficult enough for just about anyone. But Eunice also has HIV/AIDS and is on antiretroviral therapy. When she started the programme she quite literally had nothing at all.

Thanks to the programme she is been able to turn her family’s life around. She found a house to rent and started sending the children to school. But the biggest change has been their nutrition – she can now feed all of them three meals a day. Her own health has improved significantly thanks to their higher calorie intake.

They’re not out of the woods yet. Eunice managed to buy a goat with her savings but it died. She then used her money to buy chickens only to see them wiped out by illness. But she has a lot of hope for the future, something she wasn’t sure she would ever have without the programme’s help.


Martiness Melo, Galafa

Martiness Melo’s situation is not too different. She is taking care of her son’s five young children, some of which still go to school. He got divorced and moved to a different village – Martiness or the children have not seen him since.

She got involved with the project in 2015 after its leaders came to her home and helped her register. Her house was different then, much smaller. Through the EU’s financial support she has built a new home for the six of them, one with sturdy walls and a roof that keeps the rain out.

The project has also helped her buy food, prescription medicine, soap, lotion, basic household necessities. But the new house is her biggest source of pride. Rightly so – she was able to afford it by saving around 2,000 kwacha from her small 6,000 kwacha monthly allowance over an extended period of time.

She also has a small plot of land where she grows various cowpeas, beans and sweet potatoes. These are not used as a money making business, they are there to ensure her family can diversify their diet to prevent illness.

They used to eat once or twice day but now each of her children gets their full three meals. They eat a lot of nsima, a local staple food all Malawians seem to love. But they also include sweet potatoes, rice, the occasional vegetable and even fish or goat meat.

Davie Mofolo, Wizman

Davie Mofolo’s case is quite different to the two ladies’. Not only is he a man, he is also disabled. Nobody could quite tell me the name of his condition but it results in tremors rippling through his body with the force of a small earthquake.

Around 4.2% of Malawians are currently living with disabilities. Of that group nearly 60% are unemployed and are often shunned by society. This makes them vulnerable in just about any way you can imagine, from their financial standing to mental wellbeing.

Davie’s wife is also disabled and their life has changed drastically since enrolling in the programme. They were one of the first beneficiaries to be registered and the benefits have been enormous.

He used to gather firewood – a desperate attempt to make a living made difficult by his condition. Now Davie sells chickens and goats while his wife participates in the VSL initiative. Thanks to the financial support and their own savvy, their 2 year-old-daughter will now hopefully grow up in a family that is able to provide for her and send her to school.

That’s what the Social Cash Transfer programme is all about – breaking the poverty circle and helping future generation thrive instead of merely surviving.

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